Home > Archives > 03 - 2004 > «He wept not because he was in distress, but because he could finally breathe»
from issue no. 03 - 2004

«He wept not because he was in distress, but because he could finally breathe»

Thus Crivelli explains Augustine’s emotion on being baptized by Ambrose during the night of Holy Saturday 387. Now Milan has devoted an exhibition to the story of that encounter

by Giuseppe Frangi

Ambrose baptizes Augustine, tempera and gold leaf on board, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City

Ambrose baptizes Augustine, tempera and gold leaf on board, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City

Milan in the year 384 was a lively nerve-center of a city. Here dwelt the emperor of the West, Valentinian II, still a boy, with his mother Justina acting for him. Here was bishop Ambrose, the governor or consularis of Emilia who in 374 had managed to mediate between the pro- and anti-Nicea factions and who, in virtue of that intervention, found himself bishop to the satisfaction of all: the anti-Niceans trusted in his neutrality, the pro-Niceans in the unquestionable tradition of his family, the emperor in his loyalty as civic official. Ambrose, as Richard Krautheimer, one of the greatest historians of the early centuries of Christianity, writes, «for the following 24 years he made the diocese of Milan the most important in the West».
In the year 383, an ambitious young man not yet thirty, born in Africa and recently arrived in Rome, saw that Milan was the best starting point for his career. The young man was Augustine. Hearing that a request for a professor of rhetoric had come from Milan, he worked on the pagan prefect of the City, Quintus Aurelius Simmachus, to get the post. The more so as the journey was at the expense of the state and at that moment of his life Augustine was particularly conscious of money.
«Simmachus was in favour of its being a non-Christian to fill an institutional office at court», the historian Luigi Crivelli, President of the Saint Ambrose Foundation, explains. In October 384 Augustine was in Milan, accompanied by his concubine, whose name he was never to reveal, and by the son he had had by her, the 12 year old Adeodatus. «The professor did not evade the institutional duty of visiting Bishop Ambrose», Crivelli again explains. To the encounter between Ambrose and Augustine Milan has now devoted an exhibition, solemnly prepared and announced, at the diocesan museum and at Palazzo delle Stelline. Curiously enough both Corriere della Sera and La Stampa entitled their previews of the event A fateful encounter.
An encounter whose smallest details have been plumbed by the historians. And that this exhibition now aims to make known to a wider public.
They were not peaceful months for Ambrose. And they were not so precisely because of the Simmachus who was Augustine’s main sponsor. With the assassination the year earlier of the emperor Gratian, Ambrose had lost a precious ally. «He was the one who renounced the title of pontifex maximus and who with his decrees had favored the Catholic side», Crivelli reminds us. «Ambrose saw the gravity of the dangers looming over his whole policy». Augustine, given his relationships, must have been aware of the situation in which Ambrose found himself, and in the Confessions makes some brief but significant mention of it. Under his gaze the bishop had faced the “struggle for the basilicas”. Justina, mother of the barely fifteen year old emperor Valentinian II, «had begun to persecute Your servant Ambrose driven by the heresy into which the Arians had dragged her». In 385 the first request came from the Arians to have a basilica for the Easter ceremonies. Ambrose opposed it and won. The year after came a more peremptory request. They were dramatic weeks. «Death was in front of my eyes», Ambrose wrote to his sister Marcellina. The people were with him, and even at night kept watch over the Portiana Basilica (perhaps the present San Vittore al Corpo), targeted by the Arians. «Augustine was very struck by the events», Crivelli explains. «In the Confessions he speaks of himself as awestruck at the way in which “Your champion Ambrose” dealt with events; by the “crowd ready to die for its bishop”, by his mother Monica “always in the front line at services and vigils”». Augustine concludes: «I myself though not yet kindled by the fire of your Spirit, took part in the confusion and disquiet of the whole city». And in the end Justina, Augustine writes again, «was at least held back in her persecutory fury».
Illuminated letter (with figure of Saint Augustine) from a 13th century codex giving the commentary of two Dominican theologians to the De civitate Dei, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan

Illuminated letter (with figure of Saint Augustine) from a 13th century codex giving the commentary of two Dominican theologians to the De civitate Dei, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan

In the June of that 386 the bodies of the martyrs Gervasus and Protasus were found at Porta Vercellina. «We cannot be martyrs, but we find the martyrs», wrote Ambrose in the hymn dedicated to them. He immediately had them deposed in a new basilica, the Basilica Martyrum, the present Sant’Ambrogio. These facts also caught Augustine’s attention, leading him step by step to the decisive moment of his life. In the Confessions he describes, in emotional words, the removal of the bodies of the two martyrs to the basilica, the healings due to them, among which that of a blindman who regained his sight.
The summer of 386 was decisive for Augustine’s life. Ambrose had gone on a mission to Triers, where the general Maximus was camped. In his realism he had suggested to the troubled intellectual to remain under the eye of Simplicianus, an elderly priest of the Church of Milan who was also spiritual father to Ambrose. It was Simplicianus who told him of the conversion of Caius Marius Victorinus, also of African origin, a conversion he had witnessed in Rome some years earlier. «Hardly had Your servant Simplicianus finished telling me these things about Victorinus, when I was invaded by the ardent desire of imitating him». «A new desire to serve You disinterestedly and to enjoy You, O God, began to make its way in me», he writes in the very fine book VIII of the Confessions.
At the end of summer he decided to give up teaching («to get down from the chair of lies») and to enjoy the chance of an autumn holiday offered him by Verecondus, another teacher of rhetoric in Milan, who made available his house in Cassiciaco (the present Casciago, above Varese, or Cassago Brianza). Augustine went there with friends, with his mother Monica and his son Adeodatus. But before leaving he wrote Ambrose to tell him of his desire to be baptized. And he asked the bishop «what book must I read to be better ready and disposed to receive so great a grace ». Ambrose recommended the book of Isaiah. «Catechumen in the calm of the country», as he described himself, Augustine spent the days in conversations that a scribe, summoned especially, faithfully set down. They gave rise to books, among them the Contra academicos, the De beata vita, the Soliloquia. «By now I love only You, I seek only You, I follow only You», he wrote in the first book of the Soliloquia.
In January it was time to return to Milan. It was a custom of the Milanese Church, in fact, to make known, on the day of the Epiphany, the date of Easter and to publish the names of those who were to receive baptism that night. Augustine registered himself among the postulants. Then, on the night of Holy Saturday between the 24th and 25th of April 387, in the octagonal font adjacent to the apse of the basilica of Santa Tecla (the remains of the font were uncovered during excavations for the Milan subway), Augustine received baptism from Ambrose: «I was baptized and all anxiety for my past life disappeared from me». And tradition says that the person who dressed him in the white infula, performing the role of the modern godfather, was the patient Simplicianus. In the two fifteenth-century paintings in the exhibition the scene is reconstructed with precision: there one sees Augustine in the font, Adeodatus and Alipius ready to be baptized immediately after him, and his mother Monica who had silently accompanied him to this step. There is none of the emotive emphasis that, in the 17th century, Cerano was instead to put into his large canvas now dominating the apse of the Basilica of San Marco, again in Milan (not to be missed on the tour of Augustine’s Milan).
The simple and concrete symptom of the turning-point was tears. In a very fine passage in the Confessions, Augustine speaks of his readings of Plato, of the lessons he learned from him. The reading of Plato’s books had been a conversion of the intelligence in the recognition that man’s happiness consists in union with the only Creator. «Et non flebam», concludes Augustine. «Yet I did not cry». Instead, Crivelli again explains, «after that Holy Saturday days of infinite sweetness began. Taking part in the liturgy moved him to tears. He cried not because he was in distress, but because he could finally breathe».
The devoted and moving memory of Ambrose was to accompany Augustine all his life. Even in his last work against the Pelagian heresy, the unfinished Against Julian, he wrote: «My teacher is Ambrose, whose books not only have I read, but to whose words I have also listened in person and from whom I received the waters that regenerated me».

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português